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Monkey bread - a return to the primitive?

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

"It’s basically a giant bundt pan of gooey cinnamon rolls! "

Sally's Baking Addiction

And to me this looks marginally repulsive, though I have no doubt that it tastes delicious. Well - there's probably potential there for a disappointingly dry and flavourless interior - and you would definitely end up with very sticky fingers.

Coles Magazine had a short feature on monkey bread, and initially I was just going to ignore it, but then I started to wonder whether there actually was a food called 'monkey bread' or whether it was a Coles invention. Also they had, elsewhere in the magazine, a dish called

White bean stew with polenta dumplings (shown below), which is completely different but repeated that circular appearance - the circle being made up of smaller circles. I mean I know it's completely irrelevant but nevertheless this was the trigger that made me decide to write about monkey bread. What is it about circles I wondered?

Back in the day - the days of living in Donvale in the 70s and 80s - we used to buy our bread from a nearby baker's - they used to call them hot bread shops in those days. And every now and then they would make a very large round, white, sesame seed crusted loaf - flattish and made up of pull-apart sections. The sections were not round, but shaped so that the whole was a wheel. It was wonderful for barbecues with friends. Woolworths also makes something similar every now and then - a damper style bread they call it and I confess to occasionally being sucked in to buy one and they make a change from a baguette. Theirs are floury rather than sesame seed crusted.

So what is it about the pull-apart circular concept that is so attractive to us? Apparently one reason might lie in the name 'monkey bread', because one explanation of the name is that it's because we tear it apart - like monkeys would. So a primitive urge to pull food apart - which would explain the current focus on pulled pork, etc. Why are we glorifying our very ancient past these days with this emphasis on eating food with our fingers, dipping in, and pulling apart? We were much too polite to do such things when I was young. I guess some of it comes from different traditions - Middle-Eastern and Indian food is much more hands on I guess, Mexican too. Are we moving forward by going back? Are we being culturally inclusive or just primitive and macho.

But back to monkey bread. Actually monkey bread - which really seems to be an American thing - has its origins in a Hungarian dessert called Aranygaluska. The name is derived from 'arany' meaning 'golden' and 'galuska' meaning the dumpling nature of the balls. Wikipedia describes it as:

"consisting of balls of yeast dough (galuska). The balls are rolled in melted butter, and then rolled in a mixture of sugar and crushed nuts (traditionally, walnuts), assembled into layers, before being baked till golden."

This is then served with custard. Again very decadent - and according to one writer:

"Without a doubt this is a gem of Hungarian cuisine which everyone knows about, but few people prepare."

They must have made it when they went to America with the recipe though, because after a while it became an American thing, thanks in part to Nancy Reagan who served it at the White House on a regular basis and thus popularised it somehow. Now how does that happen - not many people get invited into the White House after all? But that's what the literature says. In America it seems to be an American Hungarian Jewish thing, in spite of it not seeming to be specifically Jewish in Hungary. Maybe it's because the majority of the Hungarians who went to American, were Jewish, which of course they were.

And it's now actually an American thing I think. There were very few examples from England - in fact almost the only one I found was from Ottolenghi - but then he is Jewish isn't he? And his version, like the initial one in the Coles Magazine, is also particularly decadent because not only does it have all the normal sugary things, but it has chocolate too. Chocolate and orange monkey bread he calls it, whilst Coles calls theirs Choc chunk monkey bread with chocolate sauce. Too much I think.

The other Coles monkey breads were savoury - which means that they have retained the structural concept but not the taste. And the structural concept they have retained is the double layer as one of their examples 3-cheese and herb monkey bread is not even circular. Their circular version though - Buffalo chicken monkey bread - is still very American as the chicken involved is first cooked in an American type barbecue sauce and the finished bread is dipped in a Ranch dip.

The English do not even seem to be into the pull-apart concept much. Again I couldn't find any examples from the usual suspects. Here in Australia though we are into pull-aparts, and when you look at the pictures you see that some of them could actually be called monkey bread. The main difference between the two it seems to me is that monkey bread is most often made in a bundt pan so that it has a hole in the middle, and also, most often is layered. Pull-aparts sometimes are too but more often than not they are a single layer - and not even always in a circular shape. Indeed I suspect that we would use the term pull-apart rather than monkey bread. I can't say I had ever heard the term monkey bread. Taste has quite a few examples of pull apart breads, two of which - Greek filo and butter pull-apart and Spinach and ricotta pull-apart sunshine pie I thought were a little bit different and quite tempting. Donna Hay had three examples - the most attractive of which was Potato and herb pull-apart bread wreath

But when I think about the two layer concept I think that it's not really a good thing, because the bottom layer doesn't get all that lovely stuff on the top. A bit unsatisfying for those who get left with the bottom layer. No I'd go one layer and big. It wouldn't take as long to cook either.

And just when I thought I was done with this whole thing I found something called 'crack bread'. Same concept of pulling apart, but here you make your bread, cut deep diagonal slashes in a diamond pattern in the dough and stuff the cracks with your filling. Then you pull it apart.

Fun, decadent, a bit primitive? Can we read something deeper into all this pulling things apart. Is that what we long to do in today's world? You could get all philosophical and moralising about it all I guess, but ultimately it's really just cooks trying to think up something different and bring a bit of childhood into your life. One should never give up on childhood.


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